Anjali Kapoor, David Skok, Elmer Sotto, Mark Evans, and Kunal Gupta at The Future of Media panel discussion. Photo by Eric Yip/Torontoist.
In many ways, it was fitting that Wednesday night’s “The Future of Media” event—a panel discussion dedicated to discussing the change in how we consume and produce media—took place at the Drake Underground.
Not only does the location have a conveniently located bar at the back, but the event itself provided fodder for a great drinking game. If, for example, you were to do a shot every time someone said “the days of ‘x’ are long gone,” “it’s all about the content,” or “I don’t think we know yet,” you wouldn’t so much be drunk as in a morgue with a tag wrapped around your big toe that read “Cause of Death: Alcohol Poisoning.”
But far from a criticism of either the event or the panelists, the uncertainty over a clear path forward for media is simply the reality of a massive industry in the midst of fundamental change because of the internet and mobile technology like smartphones.
Organized by Digital Journal, the panel brought together five people from different parts of the industry: Anjali Kapoor, managing editor, digital at the Globe and Mail; David Skok, who heads up the digital side of Canwest’s Global News; Elmer Sotto, head of growth for Facebook Canada; Mark Evans, a digital marketing and social media strategist; and Kunal Gupta from Polar Mobile.
Much of the discussion revolved around what you might call the fracturing of the audience’s attention. As the Globe‘s Kapoor suggested, instead of media entities trying to simply get people to focus on their paper or website, they have to figure out how to push their stories to the variety of ways we get our news now, whether smartphones and iPads or Facebook and Twitter. And that’s a difficult exercise, in part because of an entrenched conservatism in Canadian media, but also because it’s hard to know where to place your resources. As Global News’ Skok pointed out, getting newsrooms to adapt to the new realities of social media, in which people often “curate” their own news (drink!), is both complex and expensive, particularly given the pace of change of web technology. You might invest in the hot new thing, but six months and a few million dollars later, it’s been usurped by something else.
Sometimes, however, a happy medium between news and social media can be found. As an example, Facebook’s Sotto pointed out that when he worked with the Globe to implement the “Like” button, user engagement went up 81% in the first week. (Alas, no mention was made of the unfortunate problem of having a Like button under stories with headlines like “Bus Plows Into Crowd, Killing 6.”)
But all the “engagement” in the world doesn’t help unless you can make something great. One of the refrains of the night came from Evans, who, like the others on the panel, argued that at the end of day, what any outlet still needs is compelling stories to watch and read. All this new technology is a distribution mechanism, but ultimately, content is king, and what still sells is good storytelling (Barkeep! A round of Sex on the Beach!).
Still, even with deep social media integration, the problem of how to fund the changes required in modern media was highlighted by all the panelists. Web advertising is a nut no one has yet cracked, and even Gupta, whose Polar Mobile service has been quite successful in getting big-name content providers like Time and CNN onto mobile devices, admitted that advertising dollars are still not growing fast enough, in part because people want ads to just stay out of the way.
Making matters even more complicated is the fact that journalism itself is changing. Kapoor suggested that the days of simply presenting a story as straight, linear text are long over (tequila shot!). Instead, she argued that new journalists must be as versed in technology and a multimedia mindset as they are skilled at weaving narrative. Evans added that the ideal future journalist should be “part storyteller, part entrepreneur, and part geek.”
What was most clear, however, was that no one knows quite what to do, largely because we exist in a moment of historical transition during which we can’t see over the horizon. More than just a change in distribution systems, the entire intertwined ecosystem of media, journalism, and advertising is being rewritten in profound ways—so much so that they may be unrecognizable twenty years from now.
Media is stuck between waiting until a new approach is proven, while at the same time having to try new things since it can’t afford to be left behind. It’s almost enough to make one drink.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. When we drink, we often abandon ourselves to novel, risky endeavours we wouldn’t try otherwise. It’s true that sometimes they go awry. But sometimes, discarding your comfort zone while tipsy, you end up somewhere new and pleasantly unexpected. And as Sotto pointed out, the web allows media companies to experiment more cheaply and effectively than before. Sure, experiments may often fail—but it’s the one success out of a thousand failures that can change everything.
So, in the shadow of a well-stocked bar and amongst the clinks of wine and beer glasses, the only clear message to those involved in the media was bottoms up. Here’s to the the unknown that lies around the corner.